Food product labels that include traffic light symbols to convey health-related information may be more effective in helping consumers resist high-calorie foods compared to information-based labels. The results of this research, conducted by scientists at the University of Bonn, have been published in the journal Obesity.

Thirty-five participants were recruited and shown 100 products and their nutritional information while undergoing functional MRI (fMRI). The information was presented in either the form of the currently used nutrition labels or in the form of traffic light labels; the traffic light labels used “red” as a symbol that the product contains a higher percentage of fat, salt, or sugar, “green” to represent a lower percentage, and “yellow” for between the two. The participants were then instructed to indicate how much they were willing to pay for a particular product.

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Compared to an information-based label, participants were willing to pay significantly more money for the same product when the traffic light label was “green,” but the willingness to pay decreased more if the label was “red” compared to the conventional information. The fMRI indicated that a red traffic light activated a structure in the left inferior frontal gyrus that is important for self-control. This activity also influenced the ventromedial prefrontal cortex in the evaluation of the subjective value of a product via the reward system.

The researchers hope to further evaluate in-depth the role of different types of food labels in supporting consumers in decision-making regarding healthy eating.

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